Saturday, April 4, 2009

Ecotouring Puerto Princesa: Ugong Rock

The most challenging eco tour in our itinerary was a cliffhanger-type adventure up a limestone outcrop near the popular Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, which boasts of the longest underground river in the world. We drove some 60 kilometers northwest of the city proper, some of it on unpaved roads, to reach the village of Tagabinet. Tour guides in mint-green uniforms, most of them women, welcomed us with bead necklaces made of seeds.

The Tagabinet Community Tourism Association, which ELAC helped organize in 1999, run the tour. Bayanijuan helped with the project, providing safety gear for climbers and funds for visitor facilities. We started the tour by gearing up, donning hard hats and rubber-lined gloves so we could get a better grip of the ropes and rough surfaces. I had some problems with the helmet, which skewed my eyeglasses, without which my eyesight was pretty much useless in the dimly-lit caves. We entered through a dark passage, climbing and wove our way in and out the rocky labyrinth, stopping for a moment midway up to tap the vertical formation Rock that made a drum-like sound (literally, ugong). At one point, we had to rappel up a sharp incline, and in some places, squeeze our bodies through sharp crevices. When we reached the peak, a most pleasant surprise awaited us.“I’m impressed!” was all I could blurt out when I saw the view deck perched on the ledge. Our lady guides were with cold towels in hand. We savored the panoramic view of rice fields, limestone cliffs, forested hills, and Mount St. Paul while the guides told us how they built the view deck by hauling up each piece of bamboo up by pulley and manually, all in 15 days!

Back in the valley, a glass of calamansi juice with honey and a slice of cassava cake were a welcome treat after the climb. It takes about 45 minutes at an easy pace to reach the top, estimated at 80 meters. Fees are P100 per person; 60 per cent goes to the tour guide while the rest is remitted to the association. Bayanijuan project manager Gerry Ortega says they are hoping to capture the tourist market going to the Underground River. When there are no guests, the tour guides weave grass baskets that are sold as souvenirs. 

(This is part 2 of the cover feature, "The Green Dream," by Yasmin Arquiza for Seair Inflight Magazine, April-May 2009 issue. Art direction by Jocas See • Photography by Oggie Ramos)
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